Sunday, 18 September 2011



* * * * * *

1959 - France (Les Films du Carrose/Sedif Productions)

DIRECTOR: François Truffaut
SCRIPT: François Truffaut, Marcel Moussy
MUSIC: Jean Constantin

     Will it not be a little bit worrying if I start with the words 'I was dreading this film so much'? And also, if I add that I have not had seen this film before, I knew nothing about it and all I knew about the director was just his significance to the La Nouvelle Vague? I guess it would, if I were a pay-for film critic, but thankfully I am nothing more than a one-of-a-billion cinema enthusiast occupying a tiny little corner of those mighty internets. It still doesn't make it quite OK but at least there's no one here to kick me out of this job, and then again, appreciate the honesty. After all I must be the only person (or at least one of very few) who doesn't mind to admit to it, instead of copy&paste-ing fragments from Wikipedia pretending, that I knew it all since I was five.
     So, yes, the bottom line is that THE 400 BLOWS surprised me, and surprised me positively which is the kind of surprising I don't mind in the slightest. So let's break it down into a handful of paragraphs to see why.

     Probably the reason why I'm personally so scared of the trends like New Wave or more recently Dogma is their never ending quest for human misery. So many of those films are like Les Miserables rewritten by an emo basset. I find it greatly disturbing how many people seem to be emotionally perverted to the point of enjoying such atrocities. And so, knowing the poster (just have a look again at that sad face), being heavily biased against the New Wave in general and having my imagination totally fooled by the (oh-so-wrongly-translated) title, I was dreading. I was just sure that some poor, innocent soul was going to find itself at the receiving end of those four hundred blows and (no doubt) spend the last ten minutes of the film dramatically dying. I was preparing myself for the worst. I was preparing myself for the tale of human wickedness, the torment of the innocent, the emphatic pamphlet on social injustice and symphony of cruel twists of fate. What's funny, is that a lot of it is still in the 400 BLOWS present. But then again, it is a very nicely balanced story. It's not trying to be more tragic than life. Instead, it is very much like life. Which may have something to do with how much of Truffaut's own memories became the script for the film. If it was any more autobiographical, it would have to be called just that - François Truffaut's Autobiography. And my word! What a childhood it must have been. Not a happy one, you'd be excused to think at first, but then again... I think the key is clearly visible in the original, French title. Faire les quatre cents coups means 'to live a wild life', 'to raise hell', which perfectly corresponds with the way the main character Antoine Doinel behaves or at least that's how he is perceived by his parents and his teachers. A story of a troubled teenager then? It is indeed. So, what makes it so special then? What makes it stand out above so many others? Well, the obvious answer is, of course, Monsieur Truffaut.

As much as I'm sure he's never asked for it, Truffaut's biography seems to be a little bit on a colourful side, to say the least. Just like Antoine (although it should go other way round, actually), he was born to an 'unknown father' and raised by a grandmother up to the age of around ten and then moving in with the mother and her husband. Both share the passion for the cinema (somewhat getting in the way of attending the school) and Antoine's friend - René is based directly on Truffaut's friend Robert Lachenay. Truffaut also had occasional problems with the law and would spend many a night away from home. The poverty, the trouble, the lack of any 'normal' family environment do actually add up to a pretty grim picture of mostly unhappy childhood. But Truffaut's intention is not to depress us. For Antoine there's still the cinema, his best friend, rare moments of family joy. The dream of seeing the ocean one day. The hope and determination to live the life the way he wants to. Yes, Antoine does have a hard life, but whatever happens to him now, we know how the story ends. He's going to become an influential, famous film critic and after that a director, actor and a writer. Yes, Antoine deserves our sympathy, but let's not pity him. Because whatever happens to him now, in the end will turn him into a remarkable man, that Truffaut was. 

THE 400 BLOWS isn't just a sentimental journey in time, though. There are some interesting motifs, subtle undercurrents and hints. Among the tales of growing up, mischief and friendship Truffaut deals blows at French judiciary and social services system, schools, his own family. Everything woven into the plot seamlessly, not for a second the viewer gets a feeling of being fed propaganda, yet the message is there, loud and clear. At the same time Truffaut touches at other issues in an incredibly subtle way. Antoine's father - Julien urges his son to get his mother a birthday present. He's also very sympathetic about her working in an office (women should be able to work as they wish and have the same rights as men) and totally oblivious to the fact, that when she's staying longer hours at work it's not the typewriting that drains her energy. But it is a very progressive and 'modern' view nevertheless, which I wouldn't expect to be very common at the end of the fifties. That, alongside with very subtle sense of humour and a great feel for the characters show us an artist of extraordinary sensitivity, with that remarkable skill to write and direct in most instinctive, natural way. And that's what impressed me and made all the difference between my expectations and the actual film. If, as a director, you can stop yourself from going over the top, from overexposing, from exploiting viewer's emotions in an artificial and planned way, if you can get the balance right, you've got yourself a masterpiece. And with 400 BLOWS only spearheading the arrival of the French New Wave, I can only assume it all went bad later. But who knows, maybe I'm wrong again, although if I were to be proven wrong with films as good as this one, the pleasure of watching them should easily outweigh the humiliation.

To wrap it up then, as you can see I am in the end happy to have watched it. While I was preparing myself for a grand deal of suffering, THE 400 BLOWS delivered incredibly mature (and not only for such a young director!), emotionally involving (and dare I say likable?) story. It is also quite a flabbergasting discovery to see how many of today's directors, who like to bask in the glow of their own pseudo-intellectual gibberish could (and should) learn, just by doing their homework right. Sure, there is a lot of beauty, wonder and value in an imaginative, artistic cinema on one hand, but should you prefer to stick to the 'real life stories' kind of cinema, please don't go DANCER IN THE DARK way, I beg of you! I know there are people who will feel intellectually and artistically challenged when watching for two hours as Javier Bardem wants to die but it's films like 400 BLOWS that show us what a good, meaningful, smart cinema used to be about. Definitely not about throwing in the face of the viewer so called provocative and controversial subjects, just to cover the fact that except for the controversy they don't offer absolutely anything else.
Less is more. Learn it from Truffaut.

Rent it from LoveFilm
Get it on AMAZON

Previously on 1001 FILMS TO SEE AND NOT DIE: 3-Iron (Bin-jip) - Kim Ki-duk, 2006
Next on the list: 42nd Street - Lloyd Bacon, 1933
and after that (can't wait! Fellini, here I come!): 8 1/2 - Federico Fellini, 1963

No comments:

Post a Comment